Svefnthorn, or the sleep thorn or sleep stave, is a Viking symbol composed in Elder Futhark that is shrouded in mystery. In ancient Norse sagas, the sleep thorn was primarily used to put Viking enemies into a deep sleep.
The Vikings and the gods used Norse runes to exert power over their adversaries, and the mysterious pagan symbol of Svefnthorn is one of the many Viking runes used in Norse mythology.
It’s a runic inscription used to lull enemies into a deep sleep that is difficult to wake.
The image of the sleep thorn in Nordic literature takes on a few different shapes because it is often described yet never seen.
It’s sometimes described as four harpoons or a series of vertical lines. Some scholars believe it combines the Isaz rune on top and an Ingwaz rune for its base.
The shape of the Svefnthorn changes slightly, depending on the interpretation in Germanic texts, but the meaning is almost always the same.
Mentions of the Svefnthorn in Old Norse and Icelandic Literature
What we know about the Svefnthorn isn’t found within the Poetic or Prose Edda. Instead, it’s found in a collection of ancient Icelandic poems and spell books listing Nordic runes and their uses.
The Saga of the Volsungs
The Saga of the Volsungs was written around 1270 CE. In this Icelandic saga, Odin uses the Nordic rune Svefnthorn to lull the Valkyrie Brunhild into a deep sleep because she defeated king Hjalmgunnar.
To make matters even worse, Odin cast a wall of flames circling Brunhild’s body. To wake the sleeping Valkyrie, someone needed to walk through the flames to wake her. Luckily, Sigurd, a brave hero who once killed a dragon, walked through fire to save Brynhildr.
In this saga, the Norse pagan rune Svefnthorn is used differently. Vilhjalmr stuck a Svefnthorn into Hrolf’s (a king of Denmark) head while he was sleeping. In this saga, the rune takes on a physical form as an actual thorn rather than a runic inscription.
Hrólfr did not awake from the spell until a horse rolled into his sleeping body and dislodged the thorn.
The Huld Manuscript
The Huld Manuscript is a series of Icelandic runes and charms written in 1847 by Geir Vigfússyni á Akureyri. This manuscript is a collection of spells that include the Svefnthorn.
In the Huld Manuscript, users must crave the symbol into a piece of oak and place it under the pillow of someone sleeping.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki was written around the 6th century and details the king of the area now known as Denmark.
In this saga, queen Olof stuck King Helgi with a Svefnthorn to prank him and his men.
The Svefnthorn Symbol Usage Today
Many Icelandic runes, such as the Helm of Awe, Vegvisir, Aegishjalmur, and Mjölnir, are seeing a resurgence in paying tribute to the Norse gods. From t-shirts, stickers, and even tattoos, these Norse runes are far from forgotten.
The Svefnthorn rune is a popular pagan symbol because it’s a unique design and doesn’t have the negative cultural connotations of other not-so-forgotten runes (such as the swastika).
It is a peaceful symbol that signifies sleep and has a design quite different from any other Nordic rune. And the mystery surrounding this ancient Nordic symbol makes it even more appealing.